Friday, 1 Mar 2024

Ministry of Defence list reveals missing laptops and documents 'lost in post'

More than 100 devices and documents issued by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) were lost in ‘potentially disastrous’ incidents over a five-month period this year, a newly-disclosed file shows.

The list includes laptops, USB sticks, mobile phones, tablet computers and paperwork which went missing at official sites, homes and in the post.

Of a total of 122 items, 71 remained missing, with the rest subsequently located, according to the dataset obtained by Metro.co.uk.

Some were the result of what the MoD said were ‘simple errors’ — such as items said to have been lost in the post.

The Defence Digital Secretariat would only provide a snapshot between March 1, 2023 and July 17  — saying that it would be too expensive and time-consuming to retrieve a longer period.

The disclosure comes amid heightened concern over the UK’s digital security with the country facing escalated cyber attacks emanating from hostile states. At the weekend, it was reported that secret security information about British military and intelligence sites has been leaked online by hackers linked to Russia.

Thousands of pages were released onto the dark web by the LockBit group according to a report in the Sunday Mirror.

In July, Metro.co.uk reported how a cyber-attack aimed at stealing UK and European foreign policy data had been launched by hackers in China.

Professor Anthony Glees, a security and intelligence expert at the University of Buckingham, said: ‘What the Metro has uncovered displays a horrifying and potentially disastrous set of breaches of the MoD’s duty to defend its data in order to deliver our national security.

‘MI5, Britain’s security service, who have the ultimate responsibility of ensuring MoD officials do not put our security at risk, will be hopping mad at what they will regard as a cavalier attitude towards security by MoD staff.

‘What we must assume MI5 understands but some MoD officials fail to get is that hostile intelligence services, such as those from Russia, Iran, China, and North Korea, seek to build up a rich picture of UK defence activity.

‘That means collecting and analysing anything emanating from the MoD.

‘It is not about access to nuclear codes, in other words the really big national secrets, It’s about the day-to-day business of sustaining the UK’s defence capability. No scrap of information is too irrelevant for those who wish to weaken us.’

The spreadsheet released after a request sent two years by Metro.co.uk shows that 89 of the incidents ‘were on secure MoD sites or In a private residence’.

In the disclosure, the MoD states: ‘Of the losses of documents and removable media (USBs and CDs), the vast majority were of no higher classification than OFFICIAL-SENSITIVE-PERSONAL, and were the result of simple errors or mistakes e.g. items lost in the post.’

However the MoD did not state how much of the information lost in electronic or hard copy form was classified top secret.

The items lost in public places that were not found include a document on May 16 and a laptop two days later, the dataset shows.

A USB stick and two phones were also recorded as being lost outside of MoD sites or private residences during the timeframe.

A request for the data under the Freedom of Information Act was first submitted by Metro.co.uk in July 2021, asking for details of breaches in the most recent 12-month period available.

At the time, the MoD was responding to headlines about a senior civil servant who had misplaced 50 pages of classified MoD documents which were later found at a bus stop in Kent.

The secretariat then said it would be too costly and time-consuming to answer the question, before providing the spreadsheet after the timescale was narrowed to the five-month period.

In the reponse, the MoD said: ‘Of the 122 incidents of items reported lost, you will see that 51 of these have subsequently been located. 89 of the losses were on secure MOD sites or in a private residence, which significantly reduces the likelihood of harm resulting from them.

‘Portable electronic devices such as laptops, tablets, and phones can be wiped remotely as soon as the loss is noticed, which also greatly limits the possibility of a security incident occurring.’

The MoD’s policy is to encrypt all laptop, tablets and removable media to minimise the impact of any loss.

A spokesperson said: ‘We take the security of defence assets very seriously and have robust procedures to deter and prevent losses and thefts.

‘In some cases of reported theft, the property is later recovered.

‘If any items are reported lost or missing due to suspected criminal activity, we will take the necessary steps to investigate and prosecute.’

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